Which Prep School is Right for your Child? How to Choose Easily


We’re often asked by parents, “What is a prep school and where do they ‘fit’ in the private schooling system?” and so we hope this post will answer some of those questions for you too.

When and why did Prep-Schools begin?

Preparatory Schools or ‘Prep Schools’ as they are usually called, are UK private schools that originated around the beginning of the 20th century in order to prepare boys for entry to the top British public schools, such as Eton, Harrow, and Winchester.

Common Entrance was developed in the early 1900’s to provide examinations to enable assessment of boy’s abilities across a range of core subjects.

In the beginning there were only a few prep schools, however, over time and as more private independent schools were set up, additional prep schools were subsequently introduced started to cater for boys going onto an increasing range of senior schools.

Each syllabus and set of examinations are produced by the Independent Schools Examinations Board (ISEB).

Earliest age of pupils

Most prep schools admit students from age 7+ through to age 13 and they comprise a mixture of day, flex-boarding and full-boarding prep schools.

The youngest age that children are permitted to board full-time is 7, however, many schools offer flexi-boarding or weekly boarding for the youngest pupils, if required, enabling them to transition smoothly into full-boarding.

Whilst the majority of pupils will continue at their prep school until aged 13, some pupils may leave at 11+ if they are intending to enter a Grammar School or a private independent school which takes students from 11+.

Just as with the state maintained sector where there are infants schools from which children move on from up to a linked junior school, in some locations there are pre-prep schools who take children up until they are ready to start at prep school.

A pre-prep school would usually take students from aged 5 onwards, however, some may have facilities to take children who are younger – even be as young as two if the pre-prep school has a nursery facility.

This natural flow from pre-prep, to prep and then to a senior school shows how both the state and independent schools provide schooling for children from 4-5 through to 18.

Preparation for Grammar School entrance too

Following plans outlined in 1975 the Labour Government introduced the Education Act in 1976 which led to the closure of many Grammar Schools.

There are, however, localised areas across the country in which a total of 233 Grammar Schools still operate (164 in the UK and 69 in Northern Ireland).

This means that the Prep Schools in close proximity to a Grammar Schools usually finds that some of their pupils may sit the Grammar Schools 11+ entrance exams.

Then, if successful, those pupils may choose to migrate from private to state education.

Do I have to send my child to a Prep school so they can get into a senior school?

This rather depends upon which senior school you might be considering, since many schools have developed their own particular entry criteria and timetables, which need to be followed exactly.

For example:

  • Many senior schools admit at 13 based upon 13+ Common Entrance (CE) results and so for those, attending a Prep school would clearly prepare your child for those tests.
  • Similarly some senior schools admit at 11 and also rely upon 11+ CE results to draw up a short list for offer places.
  • Many (but not all) senior schools will only allow parents to apply for a place at 11 or 13 if their child has already taken the Common Entrance Pre-Tests around ages 9-10.
  • Other schools have their own entry exam criteria outside of CE.
  • And other senior schools may offer a place automatically to a pupil entering from a linked junior school.

What’s the difference between a ‘feeder’ and a ‘non-feeder’ Preparatory School?

Broadly, there are four types of Preparatory Schools

  1. These are Prep School that are co-located with a specific Senior School and pupils would normally stay within the ‘family’ for the duration of their schooling.
  2. These are Preparatory Schools and although not being located local to a particular senior school, they are owned by one and pupils usually move up to that senior school at the end of their Prep School years.
  3. The third type of Prep school is one which has no tied relationship with one specific senior school but has had regular and ongoing success each year with pupils passing CE and progressing from them to a core selection of top-ranking senior schools.

These three types of Prep School are also known as a ‘feeder schools’ because they have, historically, succeeded in placing their pupils into specific senior schools.

A fourth category of Prep School is a ‘non-feeder school’.

These are ones which may prefer to let the decision as to a pupil’s most appropriate senior school take shape during their time at the school.

What does a Prep School offer a child?

More than simply preparing them to sit Common Entrance, a good Preparatory School enables a child to develop in many ways, such as:

  • Developing self-confidence
  • Developing resilience and empathy
  • Providing opportunities to expand their sports ability
  • Help with learning time management
  • Regular practice at public speaking
  • Learning honesty and positive values
  • Opportunities for acting, music and dance
  • Practical learning of orderliness and cleanliness

Prep schools are also well-versed at helping foreign students to integrate into English schooling system, including where necessary including any extra support for language skills.

Should we select a co-educational or single sex school?

This is an often-asked question, and one for which there’s no absolute ‘right answer’.

That being said, we’ll explore this further in a separate blog post articles.

From a historical perspective, the main reason we have single sex schools is that there was a time when only boys were deemed ‘worthy’ of education.

During the 17th and 18th century the only schools were boys-only schools and it was not until the 19th century that girl’s schools were first introduced.

Since the commencement of schooling for girls much has been written about the pros, and cons, of co-ed schooling or single-sex schooling and we are all none the wiser.

Over time some single sex schools have moved to a fully co-educational format, or alternatively some have chosen to remain single-sex until the A-Levels years where a co-ed format would be applied.

It has been shown that there can, sometimes, be a tendency for girls to not select STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) in a co-ed environment.

In a similar fashion, sometimes in co-ed schools boys may de-select arts or other subjects they may deem ‘soft’.

That being so, there’s merit in considering a co-ed Prep school for your child, especially if you’re considering a single-sex senior school as their destination school.

Can a Prep School ‘guarantee’ a place at a senior school?

Because no senior school can know in-advance the CE scores of those children applying for places, it’s not usually possible for a place to be ‘guaranteed’.

The exception would be for students attending a ‘feeder’ prep school, since they often have an arrangement whereby children attending the linked prep school would automatically be offered a place at the named senior school.

As regards a non-feeder Preparatory school, a good Prep School head will have already spent time with their staff assessing the suitability of each of their pupils against the criteria of their preferred senior school and this will help to ensure there are few, if any disappointments when schools decide who to accept.

Data shows that many Preparatory schools over many years have had a 100% success rate in securing the first-choice schools for their pupils and it is this skill which can help to alleviate many of the concerns or worries of parents around this topic.

Should I let my child board or not?

Parents can sometimes be concerned as to whether their child will cope with and enjoy boarding.

In addition and alternatively, for day pupils, depending upon location, the school may provide a school bus so you won’t have to participate in the daily school run.

There are merits to both day only and boarding and many Prep schools now offer two further alternatives, weekly boarding and flexi-boarding.

With weekly boarding, pupils would return home each weekend and with flexi-boarding, as the name suggest, they would board only a few days of each week.

If you’re considering full boarding and the school offers weekly and flex-boarding, you’d do well to confirm how many pupils are full boarders.

You don’t want to discover that only a few stay every weekend as your child feel the odd one out in this instance.

Preparatory schools do provide a wide variety of activities outside of classwork for pupils when not studying and so children can often find that that they prefer to board, so as to not miss out on all the various activities and events.

Many Prep schools have a variety of facilities, such as swimming pools, croquet lawns and sports tracks, libraries and music rooms, so it’s unlikely your child will have the opportunity to become bored.

How do Prep Schools decide who to admit?

Some schools follow a ‘name down at birth’ policy but for others a more flexible approach is applied.

Some Prep schools are selective, requiring applicants to sit entry tests and include some time with them participating in a class, but these are often used to ‘stream’ pupils rather than to act as a bar to admission.

In some locations, however, usually where there is strong demand for places, Prep schools may well require children to sit an entrance paper before deciding whether to offer them a place.

Do all Preparatory schools each take the same amount of pupils?

Just as the oldest senior schools have evolved over many centuries, many Preparatory schools have grown and developed over time as well.

Many are located within wonderful old historic buildings, often within their own grounds, meaning pupils will always have things to do or places to relax in away from study work.

Their locations and grounds also mean there’s usually a good selection of sporting facilities, both indoors and outdoors.

The Independent Schools council defines a small Prep school as one with less than 150 and a large Prep school as those with over 300.

Being a small Prep school can sometimes have its disadvantages, however.

Smaller prep schools aren’t always able to benefit from economies of scale, or have access to the funds to renovate or re-develop their buildings and sometimes this has led to their closure.

That being so, those smaller Prep schools around now are clearly doing well and securing a good intake of pupils each year.

Whatever size of Prep school you decide upon you’ll find that most have smaller class sizes than a state school would for a similar age range.

Teachers are therefore more able to ensure all children can participate fully in the lessons.

This also means that if there’s ever any requirement for any help or additional work, this can be dealt with quickly so your child doesn’t fall behind in their studies.

How far in advance of the entry date should we select a Prep school?

It rather depends upon the Prep school in question.

Some, due to their location, and whether or not they are a ‘feeder school’, find that places are reserved by parents quite a few years before their child is of an age to attend.

In comparison, other Prep schools may have capacity inter-year after the start of term.

Those with spaces free should not be seen as ‘less good’, since perhaps it’s simply that they prefer to let parents find them, rather than carry out a strong marketing exercise.

Are there any academic benefits of attending a prep school?


According to the Independent Schools Council attending an independent school in England is associated with the equivalent of receiving two additional years of schooling by the age of 16.

And it’s not just the ISC who have shown this, Department of Education performance tables from KS4 to KS5 back this up.

They show that 94% of ISC schools added ‘significant’ value compared to 37% of state schools.

This is why some parents will choose to send their children to a Preparatory school even if they subsequently switch to state schooling, at a Grammar School or other top state school perhaps.

Their child will already have in place a wealth of skills in readiness for their next level of studies.

There is a Preparatory School that would be perfect for your child

The UK has a great range of Prep schools and undoubtedly there are one or two (or even more) that would suit your child perfectly.

If, however, you’re feeling rather overwhelmed with the choice available and would like some help to clarify your options you can contact us here or you can call us on +44 (0) 7730 692911

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